I‘m not sure if I am losing the plot – being a little mad, but sadly not very dangerous to know – but I thought I had drawn your attention to the latest on-line edition of CONCEPT, the Scottish Community Education journal. However on reading afresh Jo McFarlane’s Inspirations piece, Mad, Glad and Dangerous to Know, I realised I hadn’t! It’s a lovely bit of writing by the ‘mad poet’ about the people, who have inspired her.
You will notice a pattern of stoic endurance emerging in my inspirations, perhaps
because it is a quality with which I little identify. One of my favourite films is Tony
Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) not just because of
its evocative black and white cinematography, but because the protagonist – a young
man sent to borstal who finds an outlet for his anger in running – does not neatly turn
his life around and become integrated into the society which has rejected him. Neat
endings abound in literature and film but they rarely correspond to our real lives. This
story is notable because the protagonist takes advantage of the sporting opportunity
afforded him by the system but remains ‘his own man’, using the solitary pursuit of
running to forge his rage rather than as a get-out-of-prison-quick card. This reminds
me of the way community educators use public resources to foster critical
consciousness in people rather than as a means of co-opting them. In a context of diminishing funds it is more important than ever to remember that those of us who
work for change are agitators rather than agents of the state.
And in thinking about working for change Tania de St Croix’s passionate and grounded Keeping It Real : Part-time youth workers at the the centre and periphery asks us to think afresh. It opens:
Equality and participation are portrayed as central principles of youth work, but it has
always been questionable how deeply they are embedded in reality. Even where
attention is given to anti-oppressive practice with young people, staffing structures
tend to be hierarchical and undemocratic. This was noted in a review of training
provision nearly thirty years ago and remains true today:
Part-time youth workers, paid or unpaid, occupy a contradictory position.
They work face to face with young people and so are at the centre of what
goes on: but they are more often than not at the periphery when it comes to
many of the decisions and discussions that affect their work. (Bolger &
Scott, 1984, p.7)
Since these words were written the contradiction they expose has been strengthened by
the intensification of neoliberal education and policy regimes. As youth work becomes
increasingly managerial and bureaucratic, full-timers and managers tend to leave more
of the everyday practice to paid and volunteer part-time workers. Many of these part-timers develop close relationships with young people, but feel alienated from the
money-oriented and target-driven environments in which they work. Starkly, those
youth workers who spend most of their time with young people are the worst paid and
least likely to be heard.
Indeed within our own Campaign the voices of part-time workers are in a minority. This suggests that in the near future we should be organising an Engaging Critically seminar on this theme.
As ever Mae Shaw’s Community Work Today : Competing Demands in Practice raises the awkward questions that many would prefer to see brushed under their IKEA klim – take the following paragraph and replace ‘community’ with ‘youth’.
It is widely recognised, for example, that the search for meaningful praxis is futile
without an adequate analysis of the ideological recycling in policy of ‘community’,
and the contradictory position of community work practice within the wider politics
of the state. If community workers are not to be regarded, and to regard themselves,
as mere delivery vehicles, they need to be exposed to the kind of critical thinking
which calls into question community work as an historically situated and
ideologically contested professional practice. Otherwise, as Giroux (1995:16) warns,
they are in danger of lacking a ‘frame of reference or a vocabulary with which to
articulate the centrality of what they do’. Such a vocabulary is already in danger of
being marginalised, if not entirely erased, within the audit and measurement discourse
that dominates contemporary community work (Fraser, 2012; Scott, 2012).
All the other articles have relevance for us, even though they focus on adult and community education. However the journal closes with Ross Shoemark asking ‘What Future for Youth Work?‘
We face a struggle to preserve the democratic traditions and radical origins of Youth
Work from marketisation and instrumentalisation which parallel the wider struggle to
maintain socially democratic institutions in the country at large. Youth Workers
traditionally aim to expose received ideas, media stereotypes and ruling paradigms,
and we encourage young people to critically reflect on dominant political narratives.
Yet the ‘new’ social policy language is drawn from the vocabulary of business: performance targets; outcomes; impacts. Implicit and disturbing is the necessity of ‘competition’ – that is, competition between agencies. Competition is, by its very nature, divisive and hierarchical. The risk from our perspective is that it is reductive and works to subvert the democratic processes and principles of Youth Work by favouring a capital based business model. It shifts Youth Work from being a collaborative and dialogue-based process to a market-driven contract between an external agency and service users, re-imagined as consumers.
Reading these words prompts us to make fresh efforts to meet up with our fellow-travellers north of the border in ‘being strong at the broken places’. Watch this space.